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Be A Buddy

by Jim Park

Little kids like big trucks. No argument there. Little kids probably like truck drivers too, because they tell great stories and they've been to lots of cool places. But mostly it's 'cause they drive big trucks. Where else are you going to find that kind of unconditional friendship and respect these days?

If you're the type who likes to spin a yarn or regale the folks at home with tales of your travels, you might better serve your inbred need to communicate by becoming a Trucker Buddy. This neat organization exists solely to provide a link between truckers who love to talk about what they love to do and classrooms full of school kids who'd love to hear about it.

Headquartered in Waupaca, Wis., Trucker Buddy International has been acting as a clearing house since the early 1990s, nowadays sponsored by Caterpillar, the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association, Meritor, Qualcomm, and others. It provides contact information from drivers who wish to set up a 'pen pal' relationship with classrooms from grades two through eight. The teachers recognize the value of the letters and postcards in stimulating the children's interest in reading, writing and other subjects, and often integrate them into their teaching routines. To date, Trucker Buddies have helped bring a new avenue of learning to the lives of more than 500,000 students.

Ellen Voie, executive director of the non-profit organization, is currently managing 4600 trucker/classroom pairs, but says there are only 88 Canadian drivers and 23 Canadian classrooms in the mix.

The idea behind Trucker Buddy is to have a driver relay information and stories about his travels to students in an assigned classroom,. They in turn pose questions, tell personal stories, or respond to the trucker's questions. With the advent of e-mail, the messages fly at a furious pace, and often include digital photographs and descriptions of the driver's travels. Many drivers still prefer to send a constant barrage of postcards and trinkets from their various ports of call.

Dave Faulkner is one of those 88 Canadian Trucker Buddies He's matched to a seventh-grade class in St. Clair, Mo. Faulkner says "his kids" are aware of Canada, but know little about the country. He was even asked who he voted for in the recent U.S. presidential election.

"I got a kick out of that one," he says. "But it opened up a new thread of messages and allowed me to talk about the Canadian election and how the two countries manage the process differently."

It's up to the teacher and the driver to establish the structure of the relationship. Some teachers prefer to make participation a group effort, while others, like Jenny Davis, Faulkner's 7th grade Teacher Buddy, allow the kids to write personal notes to their drivers after their assignments are done.

Each match produces different results, depending largely on the level of enthusiasm each party brings to the exercise. Lynne Smotrycki and Larry Carlson of Winnipeg, Man. maintain two on-going Trucker Buddy relationships. One is a third-grade class in Kitimat, B.C., and the other is a one-room school house in Dalton, Ga., where the kids range from kindergarten to grade seven. "The school in Kitimat doesn't have a computer, so we write to them, and some of the kids in Dalton can't yet read or write," Lynne told us. "So we make the odd telephone call and do the rest via e-mail."

It can be an effort at times, especially if the class writes individual letters. In print or via e-mail, 30 pieces of mail is intimidating. Period. But every driver tackles the challenge in his or her own way.

Andy Susin of J.B.M. Logistics in Saskatoon says he sometimes has to work at it a bit, but hasn't had the slightest regret about getting involved.

"Being a Trucker Buddy has changed the way I do my job," he says. "The urge to get a little aggressive with an annoying four-wheeler used to get the better of me, especially when I couldn't relate to the people in the car ahead. But when one has class after class of little Trucker Buddies out in the world, the people in that annoying car are no longer non-persons. They become the little people that I care about. Those kids are in awe of me and what I do. The last thing I want to do is lose their respect."

Jean Catudal, a French-Canadian driver with SGT International, adds another dimension to the International Trucker Buddy concept. His class is in Tonawanda, N.Y., practically on the Canadian border, but they've never been exposed to Francophone culture. Catudal says he's frequently asked to speak French when he visits the school with his truck.

"One of the principles of Trucker Buddy is to improve the impression the public has of truck drivers," Catudal says. "Can there be any better way than this?"

When you're finished reading this issue, send a copy of the story to school with a child you know. Let's try to get a few more Canadian classrooms interested as well.

For more information on becoming a Trucker Buddy, call 1-800-My Buddy (692-8339). Or visit the website at: www.truckerbuddy.org. Membership is absolutely free.

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